Erdogan's enemies

Kurdish fighters are seen as primary target of Turkey’s defense campaign.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
(photo credit: REUTERS)
ISTANBUL – Following a devastating Islamic Statelinked attack on a Turkish town near the Syrian border, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched a campaign primarily targeting the Kurdish fighters who are the extremist group’s most effective opponents, essentially terminating the peace process with Turkey’s Kurds.
Following the July 20 bombing that killed 32 young Turks in the small town of Suruc on their way to cross the border to help rebuild Kobani after it was retaken from Islamic State control, two Turkish police officers were found shot to death in their apartment in nearby Ceylanpinar. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) claimed responsibility, accusing the officers as well as the caretaker Justice and Development Party (AKP) of collaborating with Islamic State, and announcing an end to peace talks with the government.
“I don’t think it’s possible to continue the peace process with those who continue to take aim at our national security and brotherhood in this country,” Erdogan responded in a public address in Ankara on July 28.
While the government launched air strikes against Islamic State in Syria and the PKK in northern Iraq, and made over 1,000 arrests of Islamic State and PKK members and supporters in Turkey. On Sunday, in response to Turkish retaliation, the PKK carried out a suicide bombing on a military police outpost in the eastern province of Agri, killing two soldiers and wounding dozens.
However, AKP critics say the party is focusing its military response on PKK supporters.
“It’s very clear from the military campaigns conducted by the Turkish state that the priority is the PKK; it’s not ISIS,” Istanbul- based analyst and security expert Gareth Jenkins told The Media Line.
ON JULY 23, Turkish tanks shelled Islamic State forces in Syria, and the next day three fighter jets hit three Islamic State targets. But Jenkins said that soon after, a far larger attack was launched against PKK targets in northern Iraq, with 75 Turkish jets hitting 48 targets.
“With the campaign against ISIS, the objective appears to be deterrence, and to push ISIS away from the Turkish border close to Kilis. What we’re seeing against the PKK is an attempt to destroy the organization,” Jenkins said.
At the same time, arrests in Turkish cities have been overwhelmingly directed toward PKK supporters and other government critics.
“At least 80 percent [of the arrests], as far as I can work out, are actually Kurds or leftists. Probably 85%,” Jenkins estimates.
Mesut Yegen, a sociology professor and Kurdish issues expert at Istanbul Sehir University, said the government’s campaign has little to do with Islamic State.
“Basically the AKP is trying to limit the power of the Kurdish movement in general, in Syria and in Turkey,” he told The Media Line.
AKP officials have repeatedly said there’s no difference between the PKK and Islamic State, a claim that has infuriated millions of Turkey’s Kurds and damaged Kurdish support for the party.
“To equate [the PKK] with ISIS is completely unfair,” said Aliza Marcus, author of a book about the PKK, over the phone from Washington, DC. She pointed out that the PKK hasn’t targeted civilians in many years and the attack on the police officers in Ceylanpinar was very uncharacteristic, a claim that every analyst The Media Line spoke to echoed.
Many Kurds switched their votes from the AKP to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) during the general election in June. The HDP crossed the 10% threshold to enter parliament, which prevented the AKP from being able to form a government. Now the AKP rules as a caretaker government, since the parties in parliament have so far failed to form a coalition.
THE HDP, which is separate from, but heavily influenced by, the PKK, is now being targeted by the AKP and other parties.
Far-right Nationalist Movement Party head Devlet Bahceli called for the HDP to be shut down, and Erdogan wants HDP members to lose their parliamentary immunity so they can “pay the price” for links to “terrorist groups.”
The HDP’s co-chairman and public face, Selahattin Demirtas, welcomed the idea of stripping parliamentary immunity, asking the AKP to do the same.
“Are you in? Let’s strip [our] immunity all together, if you are not afraid of it,” he said at a parliamentary meeting.
Demirtas in fact denounced the PKK’s killings of police officers and soldiers.
“They should not have been killed.
Nobody should be killed…. I do not find a motive or justification,” he told Turkish daily Radikal.
“The PKK acts should stop. The state’s operations should stop.”
“He’s done more than any other Kurdish nationalist politician to distance himself from the PKK,” said Jenkins.
AKP Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc made a statement asking why HDP members weren’t among those killed in the Suruc bombing, evidently implying that they were behind it. However, two HDP members did die in the bombing, including Ferdane Kilic, her son Nartan, and Duygu Tuna.
Three HDP supporters also died in an Islamic State-connected bombing of an HDP election rally in Diyarbakır in June.
Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations and political science at Istanbul Bilgi University, said attacking the HDP, the most moderate element of the Kurdish movement, could have devastating consequences.
“My real concern is how far the government will take this effort to delegitimize the HDP, which after all does have 80 seats in parliament,” he said. “The real task is to maintain them in the political space. If we lose that, then anything can happen, I think.”
Marcus said the peace process is impossible without the PKK, which she says “the overwhelming majority of Kurds” support.
“The PKK is a necessary part of this.
Erdogan himself recognized this two years ago,” Marcus said, referring to previous talks between the government and imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.
“The problem is that Turkey hasn’t really seriously engaged with them,” Marcus says. “There’s just been letters back and forth and meetings, but there hasn’t been an actual organized negotiating process where the two sides can really see where they can reach agreement and where they can’t.”
Ozel said that Erdogan is a major hindrance to peace. “The president has no intention of picking up the peace process where it was left off.”
Marcus is equally pessimistic. “It does seem like Erdogan has decided that there’s nothing more he wants to give Kurds.”
Jenkins thinks the renewed fighting between the PKK and the government is pointless. “This appears to be motived by short-term political goals. It’s not going to solve anything. It’s going to deepen the wounds already in Turkish society. It’s going to result in more people being killed.”
He said the main threat is street violence. “The great fear is that we get an increase in ethnic clashes… between Kurdish and Turkish nationalists on the streets. And I think that risk is now quite high.”
Jenkins believes the only road to peace is a political solution. “The PKK cannot win militarily and it cannot be defeated militarily. Ultimately, there has to be some negotiations, and I think everybody rational knows that. Certainly people in the [AKP] also know it.”
Marcus predicted the fighting will only increase Kurdish support of the PKK. “Recruitment will certainly go up.”
MEANWHILE THE United States and Turkey concluded a deal in which the US can use bases on Turkish soil to strike Islamic State, and an “ISIS-free zone” is to be established in northern Syria along the Turkish border.
“Anything ISIS-free is a good idea, but the real question is, is it a plausible idea? Who’s going to replace them?” asked Ozel. “If the groups that replace them are just a degree away from what ISIS is like, then does it really make a difference? And how are you going to do it without boots on the ground? I really don’t know.”
The plan is to give control of the safe zone to “moderate rebels,” but the most moderate and militarily effective group in the region is likely the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian offshoot of the PKK that US forces have been working closely with but which Turkey considers a major threat.
The Turkish government “doesn’t particularly like that the PYD operates alongside American forces and has good relations,” said Ozel.
The PYD and activists accused Turkish forces of shelling their fighters near Kobani and attacking a nearby village, an incident the Turkish government, which says it’s not targeting the PYD, said it would investigate.
The other “moderate” force the US and Turkey may be thinking of is the Free Syrian Army, but Ozel said that group would be a poor choice to control a safe zone in Syria.
“The Free Syrian Army is something that exists by and large in name only. I don’t think it’s a very successful or competent fighting force,” he said.
NATO members expressed solidarity with Turkey’s campaign against Islamic State and PKK forces during an emergency meeting called by Turkey on Tuesday, but cautioned the government to use “proportionate” force and to preserve the peace process.
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